When Ithacans hear the name Ezra Cornell, they typically think of Cornell University—and rightfully so. However, Cornell, a year before founding his university, gave the community another institution that incubates education: a free, public library.
With Cornell’s vision still intact, in 2014 the Tompkins County Public Library (TCPL) held its 150th Anniversary celebration, which included the sesquicentennial art exhibit “150 Years and Counting.” Library Director Susan Currie said she often ponders what Cornell would think of his initial footprint as it stands today.
“I think Ezra would be proud—proud of the institution he created, of the community that it has helped prosper, and proud of our vision for the future,” she said. “Ezra Cornell was a visionary when it came to anticipating the library of the future. He very candidly said that the community would have the kind library it was willing to support. We believe that with the support of our community, we will be able to continue to grow and evolve.”
Tompkins County historian Carol Kammen echoed the sentiment that Cornell would have been a fan of “his” library in the 21st century.
“When this library was first founded by Ezra Cornell, his goal was to make knowledge available to, as he put it, ‘everyone, even poor boys,’” Kammen said. “The library has kept that tradition alive by welcoming all demographics of the community.”
Although Cornell would likely be impressed with the library, it might take him a while to find it. During its 150-year history, the library has relocated three times. The original Cornell Library Association first resided in a building on Tioga Street at the south side of Seneca Street until it was demolished in 1960. (The Chemung Canal Trust Company drive-through is there now.)
During the 1950s, the library moved to a temporary home in the Sons of Italy Hall on West State Street, where it celebrated its centennial in 1964. In 1967, the library turned over its books to Tompkins County. A new library, located at the corner of North Cayuga and West Court streets, opened in 1969 and was in use into the cusp of the new millennium.
In 2000 the library was moved to the former Woolworth department store, at the corner of East Green and South Cayuga streets. Currie said the library has no plans of moving any time soon.
“Our library provides a warm and inviting environment for patrons of all ages,” she said. “Obviously, the library’s physical locations have changed. We have been fortunate to have a county legislature and community of supporters who have helped to make sure we are a visible and vital part of the community.”
Kammen, having stepped foot in every library location except for the original, said the newest library facility, and its location, is her favorite yet.
“The temporary home on State Street was very welcoming, but the library as it is today is simply wonderful,” she said. “It has a huge presence in the community in a great neutral space.”
Both Kammen and Currie pointed out that the library’s location hasn’t been the only thing that’s changed. Currie noted the most obvious evolution is the “way people search our collection has changed from the traditional card catalog to a computerized catalog.” In 1982 TCPL was the first library in the state to adopt a computerized catalog, and it hopes to continue to be a trendsetter in the public library community in the digital age.
“Certainly the Internet has changed the way we operate and the way our patrons use the library,” Currie said. “With a tremendous number of patrons in our service area still without access to the Web at home, we serve as a virtual classroom, a resource center for employment seekers and a training place for those new to the Internet. Really, changes happen at the library every day. As the needs of our patrons change, so do we.”
If the first 150 years were any indication, Cornell’s first contribution to Ithaca community appears well suited to turn 150 more pages.
“I think it has served well in the traditional sense of what a community library should be,” Kammen said. “It faces the future by embracing change while staying inclusive to all of its existing users.” §